Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 104

On May 28 in Rome, an unprecedented summit of NATO’s nineteen member countries and Russia launched a NATO-Russia Council (NRC), the first institutional expression of a growing political rapprochement. Russia receives some carefully regulated decisionmaking powers within that body, which has somewhat misleadingly been dubbed “NATO at 20.” It is not a NATO, but a NATO-Russia forum of twenty coequal countries.

While debate is raging in the West over the possible consequences for NATO of this development, there is virtually no Western discussion of how the new relationship with Russia would affect the vast area to the east of the enlarging NATO. Western coverage of the U.S.-Russia summit, held the preceding week, similarly ignored the problems in post-Soviet Eurasia, even as Russian president Vladimir Putin had moved to create a Russian-led political-military bloc of reluctant countries there.

Yet, this is the area–from Poland’s and the Baltic states’ eastern borders all the way to the Black Sea-South Caucasus-Caspian-Central Asian continuum–where the West as a whole has in recent years developed vital economic, strategic and security interests. It is also the area in which potential threats need urgently to be addressed. This, not core Europe, is the area in which NATO will either pass or fail the test–which the alliance itself seems to seek–of its relevance.

How will the new NATO-Russia relationship generally, and the NRC specifically, affect countries in that area? The NRC includes NATO’s nineteen current member countries and Russia, but leaves out the countries aspiring to NATO membership. NRC’s statutory functions include “consensus-building, joint decision and joint action for the member states of NATO and Russia.” The domains of such joint endeavors are listed, albeit in general language, leaving ample scope for interpretation down the road. Two of these domains would directly affect the NATO aspirant countries and the countries in post-Soviet Eurasia that are eager for close relations with the United States and NATO.

Line item two envisages “regular exchanges of views and information on peacekeeping operations, including continuing cooperation and consultations on the situation in the Balkans; promoting interoperability between national peacekeeping contingents; and further development of a generic concept for joint NATO-Russia peacekeeping operations.” While the NATO-led, bona fide peacekeeping operations in the Balkans are thus included on the NATO-Russia agenda, Russia’s illegitimate “peacekeeping” operations in the former Soviet Union are not mentioned as a subject on the NATO-Russia agenda. Will the NRC make it a subject? Will NATO itself seek, through the NRC, to internationalize the existing Russian “peacekeeping” operations?

At present, Russia holds de facto a monopoly on “peacekeeping in the CIS space,” though it failed to obtain international recognition of such a prerogative. One element of a Russian sphere of influence has thus been created in the last decade, and has remained in place since then. One challenge before NATO members is to avoid any impression of a Russia-NATO division of “peacekeeping” spheres. The task lies wholly within NATO’s means. Any “joint NATO-Russia peacekeeping operations” must cover Moldova, Georgia and Central Asia.

Line item four envisages ratification of the Agreement on the Adaptation of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty by all the states-parties, “which [ratification] would permit accession by non-CFE states.” The second element in this clause implies accession to the CFE by the three Baltic states, which are not parties to the treaty or the adaptation agreement. Russia wants to have the three Baltic states covered by CFE ceilings, so as to restrict the weaponry that NATO may station in the Baltic states, once they become members of the alliance. For their part, the Balts and NATO take the position that the three states would accede to the adapted CFE once they join the alliance as members. Russia now seems to be moving toward acceptance of this viewpoint.

But will NATO go for ratification of a treaty that Russia has been flagrantly violating for years now in the South Caucasus? There, Russia moved some of its CFE-restricted combat hardware from the Akhalkalaki base in Georgia to the Gyumri base in Armenia, instead of repatriating it to Russia; it retains the Gudauta base in Georgia, almost one year after the stipulated deadline for its closure; and refuses to allow the OSCE- and CFE-mandated inspection there.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe–the sponsoring body of CFE–is powerless to correct or even call those violations, simply because Russia holds veto power in the OSCE under the latter’s “consensus rule.” The newly created NRC will also operate with NATO consensus. But that does not apply to NATO as such. Will NATO condone the emergence of areas of differentiated security, one in which NATO members comply with the adapted CFE as a matter of course, and even accede to it when under no obligation to do so (as with the Baltic states after joining NATO), and a different area in which Russia is given license to violate CFE, not just on its own territory, but on the territories of sovereign countries?

The NRC will operate by consensus, with each of the nineteen allied countries acting in its own national capacity–rather than as an alliance–and Russia an equal member among equals, entitled to block decisions through the OSCE-like device of withholding consensus. To prevent a possible paralysis through Russian obstruction, NATO has introduced a set of “safeguards” in the NRC. Any member country is entitled to “retrieve” an issue from the NRC forum of 20, and introduce it on the agenda of NATO itself, for decision by the Nineteen. How this will work in practice is yet to be tested.

One certainty is that Russia will have no influence on decisions related to NATO’s enlargement and the alliance’s Partnership programs with noncandidate countries such as Ukraine. There, the Kremlin is currently trying to influence Ukraine directly, through bilateral mechanisms, as well as corral Central Asian countries along with Belarus into a Russian-led bloc (NATO documents released on May 27-28; see the Monitor, May 3, 9-10, 15, 20-21, 23-24, 28).